Squat or get off the plot.
A pair of sibling developers with a checkered past are trying to give the boot to the community garden that has been squatting for the past year and a half on a vacant lot they own. The brothers came to shoo the gardeners personally on Sept. 23, but cops sent the pair packing when they couldn’t provide satisfactory proof of ownership, according to gardeners and news reports. The green thumbs are now digging in their heels, saying the no-longer-absentee landlords don’t care about the neighborhood as much as they do.
“All we’re trying to do is keep the property clean,” said Cameron Page, a co-founder of the garden who lives nearby. “If they want to let it sit there trash-strewn and rat-infested they can, but they shouldn’t.”
Page, his wife, and a group of neighbors began clearing out the lot to make way for a garden at 237 Maple St., between Rogers and Nostrand avenues, in the spring of 2013, but not before spending months trying to get in touch with owners Michael and Joseph Makhani, he said. When they got no response, the block association gave the gardeners its blessing and the project moved forward. Today the Maple Street Garden has about 50 paying members, a core group of 15-20 gardeners, and is home to a functioning compost system and 14 raised garden beds, Page said.
The Makhanis contacted Page about a year ago telling him the garden had to go, but they never followed up, he said.
The recent conflict flared up on Sept. 22, when Page said Joseph and Michael Makhani showed up, began tearing down signs, and demanded people at the garden to pack it in. The next morning a neighbor called 911 when he saw a moving crew starting to break up some of the garden’s raised beds. The movers stopped working when they learned their task had opposition, but Page said that the Makhanis showed up shortly thereafter and ordered them to keep working. The dismantling finally halted when cops on the scene asked the brothers to provide proof of ownership, which they could not do to the officers’ satisfaction, according to witnesses and reports.
Police said they had no record of the incident.
Property records show the Makhanis do own the property, which they bought in 2003 for $5,000.
The lot has lain barren for years, and with no building permits on file, it is unclear what plans, if any, the brothers have for it. Page said he is A-okay with property owners controlling their land, but he said he wished the legal system did more to discourage absenteeism and empower neighbor beautification.
“I respect the law, but the law currently doesn’t give us much say over our block,” said Page, who said he raced from Manhattan back to the garden on Sept. 22 when he heard it was in danger. “I’m not saying we trump property rights, but there needs to be a role for the people who are putting in sweat to keep their communities looking nice.”
The Makhanis have a history of shady dealings. They each served three months in prison in connection to a real estate scheme involving foreclosed properties in Queens in 1999, and in 2009, three companies in which Joseph Makhani was a principal were fined $5,000 each for their part in another Queens scheme to rig foreclosed property auctions, according to The New York Times.
Page said that he wants the authorities to investigate whether the 2003 purchase of 237 Maple St. was legitimate, given the Makhanis’ track record.